by A.J. Wachtel
One of the first things artists across the world connect with Boston, is the magnificently extravagant July 4 festival that draws more than a half million people to the shores of the Charles River. Once, while experiencing Independence Day in Arizona with maybe only 30 other people watching Scottsdale’s fireworks, I looked around and realized how great it is to share this special event with Keith and the Boston Pops at the Hatchshell each year. Read on and hear what the man with the wand has to say:
Noise: You joined the Pops as the 20th conductor in 1995. When you first met your predecessor John Williams, were you intimidated or was he sort of a normal guy? Do you think people get intimidated when they meet YOU now?
Keith: I first met John for dinner, the night before the press conference announcing my appointment. I was intimidated by just about everything that was happening to and around me, but he is a very humble and reassuring presence. I remember one piece of advice he gave me: he told me not to try too hard to make it “my” Boston Pops; that the institution had been around for over a century. and that if I worked hard to keep its traditions alive and flourishing, that it would eventually reflect who I was. Good advice. I think that people are sometimes intimidated meeting me, but it has much more to do with the legacy of the Boston Pops than with me personally. At least, I hope it does!
Noise: Who decides which artists play with the Pops in your Jazz Fest and Edge Fest Series and on July 4th?
Keith: My staff (Dennis Alves and Margo Saulnier) and I work hard to pick a mix of artists who will reflect well on the Pops, as well as draw audience to us. For the Fourth of July, there are many cooks in the kitchen including, of course, our national TV partners at CBS.
Noise: How early do you start planning for next year’s Independence Day festivities?
Keith: July 5th!
Noise: What artists do you think played exceptionally well during their performances with you over the years?
Keith: So many great moments that it’s hard to choose. People and collaborations I particularly remember include Don MacLean (singing “American Pie”) Steve Tyler, and Cindy Lauper. Buckwheat Zydeco was pretty cool, too.
Noise: What are some of the difficulties involved in planning such a huge annual event? Any stories of sudden problems that have arisen and how you averted a catastrophe?
Keith: There are always a lot of variables in live, outdoor performance. Weather has (mostly) been kind to us, but there was one occasion a few years ago when the entire Esplanade audience was herded into the Storrow Drive tunnels because of severe weather alerts, and the 1996 performance started nearly an hour late due to pouring rain. All of those things are a challenge to our entire production team, and each time they have met the challenge.
Noise: You are intensely involved in each piece, note for note? Can you separate yourself personally from the high emotion your performances produce?
Keith: Sometimes it’s difficult, but it’s the job of a performer to feel the things he or she wants the audience to feel, without being overcome with the strong emotions music invokes.
Noise: Do the Pops ever have bad nights, and what constitutes the orchestra not performing up to their abilities and your expectations?
Keith: Every team (the Red Sox, and even the Pops) has off nights. Individuals certainly can have great performances or suffer from external factors that affect their work. Sometimes one player having a bad day can affect everyone… intonation, ensemble, and just general energy. The conductor has the ability to affect the entire performance, for better or for worse. At the end of the day, being a professional means there is a level that you never let yourself slip below, no matter how you feel or what’s going on in your life off-stage.
Noise: Over the years, do you get any chances to catch any unsigned local acts on the scene, and do you have any favorites?
Keith: I don’t get out much, at least to concerts. When you’re conducting 140 or so concerts a year, you need a break for your ears (and your mind). The PopSearch contest we had over the course of a few years was revelatory, in that it showed me what greatly talented people are around here, “undiscovered.” Our first winner, who was a superb vocalist, was a bus driver in Taunton. We also work a lot with Berklee, and I’m amazed at how many really talented and polished groups and individuals are there.
Noise: What was it like leading the BBC Concert Orchestra on the Diamond Jubilee Concert for Queen Elizabeth II? Did you meet the Queen or any of the royal family?
Keith: It was amazing… I’ve been involved in a lot of big events in my life, but never a concert of this magnitude (and the American TV audience only saw about half the concert). It was a thrill, and an honor to be centrally involved in something which meant so much to the British. I had the honor of being introduced to the Queen and Prince Charles after the concert, and my wife and I were guests of the younger royal generation at a Buckingham Palace party after the show. We spent time chatting with Princes William and Harry, who were charming and elegant hosts. And Kate looked wonderful!
Noise: Any advice to young musicians trying to get their music heard in these tough times?
Keith: Be that very difficult combination of both very good at what you do and extremely versatile. And develop the courage to go to the audience; don’t wait for it to come to you. We have to be missionaries for our art form… that’s what you signed on for when you decided to become a musician!